A few months ago Grace Paley died. I met her only once and had always hoped I might have the good fortune to meet her again. That one time was in 1986 at a barbeque in Vermont one summer evening, and to the annoyance of the hosts and other guests, I hogged her company far longer than was polite. Why she allowed me to do so I do not know, for I can only imagine it was uncomfortable to hear me lengthily gushing at her ear trying to articulate the pleasure her stories had given me, how particularly her story “Faith in a Tree” had encouraged me. She would have been 64 years old that evening, my age now; at 42, I perceived her as elderly. But wise. And she radiated something warm and kind and smiling. In any event, she was kind enough not to turn her back and flee, to allow me my one opportunity to celebrate her.
She was not quite 85 when she died, and The New Yorker in December of 2007 published a poem of hers about death which takes my breath away each time I read it. Until reading that poem, the statements about death which have most satisfied my own perception of the inevitable end we cannot quite conceive have been ancient ones – from Chaucer and Gilgamesh:
There is the house where people sit in darkness;
dust is their food and clay their meat.
they are clothed like birds with wings for covering,
they see no light, they sit in darkness…the house of dust.”
-The Epic of Gilgamesh (tr N. K. Sandars)
What is this world? What asketh man to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave,
Allone, withouten any compaignye.
Fare wel, my swete…
-Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Knight’s Tale,” lines 2776-80
Now, however, I add Grace Paley’s breath-taking expression of the end awaiting us all – because somehow it takes the cold loneliness of that end and makes it an embrace of another, of the one you most love, a last embrace in words:
one of us
will be lost
to the other
this has been
talked about but
away shyness this
business of con-
my mother said the
children are grown we
are both so sick let us
die together my father
replied no no you
will be well he lied
of course I
want you in the world
whether I’m in it or
not your spirit
I probably mean
there is always
something to say in
the end speaking
without breath one
of us will be lost
to the other
Against the poems of death, of course, there are the ones of life. Grace Paley’s marvelous story “Faith in a Tree” has always – since I first read it in New American Review number one from 1967 – been such a confirmation of the determination to live and be happy, and I keep it in my heart alongside two others – one from antiquity, one from the mid-20th century.
The former is, again, from Gilgamesh, the words of the divine ale-wife challenging the hero’s ambition to find eternity:
Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh, where do you roam?
Why do you come here, wandering these pastures
In search of the wind?
The life you seek you shall not find,
When the gods created mankind,
Death for mankind they held in mind,
Life they kept inside their hands.
You, Gilgamesh, fill your belly,
Make merry by day and by night.
Of each day make a feast of rejoicing,
Day and night dance and play!
Let your garments be sparkling fresh,
Thy head be washed; bathe thou in water,
Pay heed to the little one that reaches for your hand,
Delight your spouse with your embrace
And rejoice in hers.
For this, too, is the lot of mankind!
And finally there is this exchange between Caligula and his advisor Cherea in Albert Camus’s play, Caligula, which sums up most simply and profoundly, to my mind, the choice that lies before us:
Caligula: Men die, and they are not happy.
Cherea : Yes, but I choose to live and to be happy.
Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy
See also www.copenhagenquartet.com for information on four independent novels about the souls and seasons of Copenhagen, each written in a different style and set in a different season and which can be read independently of one another or together in any order desired: Kerrigan's Copenhagen, A Love Story, which is a novel disguised as a guide to the bars of Copenhagen, each chapter unfolding in a different serving house; Bluett's Blue Hours, a noir tale about the deep dark of Copenhagen winter and the seamier sides of life in this beautiful capital; Greene's Summer, about a Chilean torture survivor who comes to Copenhagen to be treated in a torture rehabilitation center and meets a Danish woman who has herself survived a violent marriage; and Danish Fall, a satire about 12 people connected to a Danish firm which is being downsized. And on the website www.thomasekennedy.com you are invited to see film clips from a documentary video of the Copenhagen novels and find information about Kennedy’s 2007 books of fiction, A Passion in the Desert and Cast Upon the Day, as well as the forthcoming essay 2008 essay collections: Riding the Dog: A Look back at America and Writers on the Job: 20 Tales of the Nonwriting Life (co-edited with Walter Cummins)
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